Lessons from Jonah Lehrer’s public demise

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photo source: CBS News

It has been big news around journalism and literary circles the past week that best-selling author and New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer admitted to making up some facts in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

From his statement:

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book IMAGINE. The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.

The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.

I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

– Jonah Lehrer

Many journalists and readers are incensed, since they feel that Lehrer’s transgressions tarnish everyone’s trust in the media.

If that quote was made up, then how many others were?

When the first edition of my own book Escape from Cubicle Nation came out, I was mortified to find out that I had attributed a quote to Barbara Sher instead of Marsha Sinetar, and none of us had caught the error before it went to print.

In a review of my book, someone said that after realizing that the quote was mis-attributed, they no longer trusted anything in my book. I felt sick to my stomach.

I also became scared straight for my next book, where  you can bet that I will have every reference checked five times, and validated according to the Journalism ethics and standards.

Still, I cannot guarantee that I will not screw up again.

What interests me personally about this story is why Jonah felt that he had to lie in the first place.

  • Why does crossing the ethics line feel like the only alternative for a talented, successful person?
  • What makes a professional athlete take steroids, even when he or she knows that it could ruin a reputation forever?
  • What would make a terrifically wealthy person (say, Martha Stewart) make an illegal financial transaction for a relatively tiny amount of money?

When success is only measured by external factors: prominent byline in the best publications in the world, New York Times bestseller list status, happy publishers, big book advances, anything less than this can incite panic, like that which drove Lehrer to make things up rather than admit he was wrong.

The Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed piece which said:

“What has also collapsed is our collective tolerance for complexity, our appetite for concepts that can’t be captured in catchy book titles or appropriated for corporate mantras and self-help seminars. In the wake of all that, should we really be surprised when a writer opts for a made-up Dylan quote over the real thing?

Sadly, no. Besides, it’s always been hard to understand what Dylan was saying. It’s not for nothing that some people thought “the ants are my friends” was what was blowin’ in the wind.”

I know that heated debate will rage on for a good long time about standards and ethics in journalism.

My very personal wish for Jonah Lehrer is that he feels free of the need to make things up and instead celebrates his significant talents and skills. As he reconstructs his professional career, I would encourage him to spend time crafting a definition of  success that truly fits  him, and not get caught in success dysmorphia.

I wish that for all of us. We will all screw up at some point in our lives, some of us in big and public ways. And if we end up personally skirting public humiliation, surely one of our loved ones or friends won’t be so lucky.

It is easy to point fingers when judging someone else’s behavior.

It is easy to feel humiliated and destroyed if you have screwed up.

To let that direct the rest of your life is a sad waste of potential.

May we all be given the compassion to learn the hard lessons from mistakes, and craft a new, better, stronger and more sustainable life.

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24 Responses to “Lessons from Jonah Lehrer’s public demise”

  1. This is the first I’ve heard about this scandal! I feel really betrayed. That book impressed me so much that I’ve advocated friends and family to read it.
    I’ve cited the things he said on my brand new, fledgling science blog http://discussted.blogspot.com My audience I’m sure will catch that blunder at some point and then I won’t be trusted (whatever trust I do have, being brand new to the scene). I guess it’s my fault for not doing my own research and taking his word for it.

  2. dana freeland says:

    Please shut up about this man. His only mistake was he didn’t cover his tracks. You know very well every journalist embellishes his articles. Find me one that has taken a polygraph test and found that he/she was lying about embellishing their articles. Well he is at the bottom of the well, and people should not judge him, especially after he apologized to so many, some of which are not stepping up to the plate and saying they made their story more interesting by lying.

    Anyone who says the are not going to read anything he writes…well you are fools. Please, open your lives to us and let us see what you’ve done in your life…which would probably send you to prison.

  3. Bridget Pilloud says:

    I Knew IT! I knew that he had to be making stuff up. It just didn’t make sense! I wish he hadn’t done that. I wonder what made him do so?

  4. Lawrence Fox says:

    Pam:

    An honest mistake that slips through editing, proof-reading and production is one thing (and I wouldn’t beat myself up about it TOO much, nor get that worried about one person’s distrust about the rest of your writing), but Mr. Lehrer engaged in something completely different.

    (OTOH, I do confess that I recently started–and didn’t finish–a highly recommended business book. And one reason was a badly written paragraph, early in the book, which made assertions of historical fact to support the author’s point of view/main argument. Facts which were patently wrong–and prejudiced me against the rest of the book!)

    Lawrence

  5. Erica Lane says:

    Phenomenal article that gets one thinking about their own level of integrity, definition of success and ethics. Thank you.

  6. Robinsh says:

    So a little lie can also ruin your entire career, it was the message of today’s post ?

    I learned it and now will take care about taking serious step towards making a future ladder in my business or the relations of course.

    Thanks for this article, it is very powerful to learn many things important to live a social life.

  7. Mike says:

    A clever person who chose to be lazy and got caught. I hope he learns from it and comes back as a better person and writer.

  8. Yael Grauer says:

    It was more than one misattributed quotation… It looks like he’s had a pattern of deliberately writing inaccurate information, and then–at least in this instance–blaming it on his editor, and then continuing to spread the misinformation in subsequent posts months later. See this piece by Daniel Bor: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pyramids-meaning/201208/jonah-lehrer-charmed-me-then-blatantly-lied-me-about-science

    I wrote a blog post about this and don’t want to rehash it, but I did have my own experience with him when he cited a study I couldn’t find in a phone interview and then told me it was “a forthcoming paper.” I’m pretty sure he just made it up.

    I was the biggest Lehrer fangirl ever, and I hate to kick the man when he’s down (Pam, your take was refreshingly compassionate), but I don’t think anybody’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater anymore. This isn’t an accidental misattribution or some minor sloppy errors, but a pattern of behavior. Other similar stories keep popping up…

  9. Tyler Hurst says:

    The only time I’d condemn an entire book because of a mistake (misattribution, or similar) is when someone lies about it.

    That’s what I really don’t get here. He messed up, why continue to lie? THe book was amazing without a single direct quote from Dylan.

  10. Milo says:

    Unfortunately it’s probably human nature to feel some level of schadenfraude when things like this happen, whether we like to admit it or not (or is that just me?).

    It’s important to move ourselves past those uncharitable thoughts though, and Pam, your perspective here is a great antidote to that.

    It’s such a shame that this happened as Lehrer has a lot of good things to say. I think it’s right that he be held accountable for bending the truth (which really is a cardinal sin for a professional journalist) but hope he is able to redeem himself by being more open and honest from now on.

    As for his rehabilitation, I’m sure a lot of people would be interested to hear the full ‘behind the scenes’ story. I can see the made for TV movie now..

  11. James says:

    With all the misinformation we find on the web it’s not surprising that we find it in books as authors struggle to make money from their work. What is a shame is that editors don’t get involved in the validation of the sources.

    • Linda says:

      Exactly. It is like people think if it is on a piece of paper (book, magazine, newspaper) it must be true…or if it is on their computer screen for that matter. 🙂

  12. Linda says:

    I think anyone who has been written about for main stream media and/or been interviewed / written about by the main stream media knows that inconsistencies between what they said and what they have written are inevitable and very predictable. I have written pieces for major publications and when they were published, facts, and not small ones were changed. Yes, changed. In my experience with media Mr. Lehrer is very likely the rule (who was caught) and not the exception we would all love to think he is.

    I think this is the reason we need to do our own homework in believing a source and verify it with many others (as good journalists do or at least used to) before buying into anything anyone says. At the end of the day we need to remember that the vast majority of people write for the love of writing and for money and that money part can very often come into direct conflict with the writing part.

    For my blog (which consists of interviews of people who live unconventional inspirational lives), I allow everyone to read what I wrote prior to publishing it. It always becomes a better piece and is a practice that for the most part does not exist in journalism — why? My guess is it is because of the time and accuracy it requires to engage in such a practice.

    • Yael Grauer says:

      Most journalists do not allow sources to read interviews before they’re published because it’s a conflict of interest–it can easily turn an unbiased article into something that reads more like a PR pitch. I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing with your blog–just that different types of media have different rules.

      • Linda says:

        That could be one reason but I think in carefully selecting the people you talk to or choosing to not publish those people who try and make it a PR piece that can be avoided. If you incorporate that strategy with the strategy of allowing them to review it then you are ensured a 100% accurate piece — which in my experience with working with the media has never happened when me or my family is represented. Also, when you right about topics that are very emotionally and personally sensitive as I do at times — I think it is a matter of respect to the person you are talking with.

        • Yael Grauer says:

          I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one! Everyone is going to want to clarify what they say in a way that puts them in the best light. As a journalist, it would be unfair to only talk to some people and not others due to that, or to have a double standard in who sees the written work before publication and who doesn’t. Also, what a subject might think is 100% accurate may not be objectively accurate. And whether someone is making major tweaks due to inaccuracy or other reasons is hard to tell when you get too close to the subject. It is a very slippery slope. One way to assure accuracy is to have journalists turn in copies of their audio or notes, or to have fact-checkers verify quotations. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to see the entire thing. Also, once people start making corrections in quotes and wanting things left out, it could butcher an entire story…or make angles covered seem out of context. This isn’t to say people should blatantly print false information… but I think using information someone gives me in a written piece without showing them the piece before publication is not only fair game, but meets the highest standards of journalistic integrity.

  13. Jason Hull says:

    I do not condone Mr. Lehrer’s lying and subsequent cover up. However, this affair has a feeling of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    One misattributed quotation in your book did not mean that everything else in your book was wrong. Certainly, you had no intention to deceive people, and, despite the misattributed quotation, there was a ton of value in your book. People got a lot out of it and changed because of what you wrote.

    Granted, there is a difference between misattribution (your case) and fabrication (Lehrer’s case), but I argue that a lot of what he wrote still holds true. Lehrer the author may be discredited, but if his ideas had a positive impact on your life, should you suddenly discredit them too? They were probably not fabricated, or, at worst, you experienced a positive placebo effect.

    What is the rehabilitation path for Lehrer? What would make us trust his next book? Would it have to be a soul-baring tell-all mea culpa?

  14. Rob Collins says:

    Pam, Dan Ariely’s latest book, “The (Honest) About Dishonesty” provides some interesting potential explanations. I really think you’d enjoy it. Despite the fact that we all like to think of ourselves as totally honest, Ariely’s clever experiments show that most of us will cheat, but we tend to usually only cheat in relatively small ways. We then rationalise our behaviour so we can still feel good about ourselves.

    Takenm in this light, Lehrer’s actions really don’t seem that unusual at all. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked that people will cheat in small ways like this. Unfortunately for him, he was caught out.

  15. Hilary says:

    I love that you call this out. What I find interesting is that it is not only about Jonah’s personal pressure to live up to his name but our cultural intolerance of mistakes. As a society, we are so quick to tear someone down at any sign of weakness- yet the irony, in my opinion is that when someone in that position of fame and power stands behind his/her mistake – it makes them ever the more strong and invincible. We forgive, perhaps not as quick as we pounce, but we always find a way to forgive those we love.

  16. Pam,

    Thanks you for sharing this nuanced, vulnerable and insightful commentary on Jonah.

    As a huge fan of his work, I was saddened by his resignation (I continue to look forward to his new work!) — because, I believe that, as you said, his actions were far more about aligning with a perverted notion of success, rather than obfuscating the truth.

    Honestly, making up the quotes was probably far more about HIGHLIGHTING the truth and speaking it in a highly direct manner, than about hiding it.

    And, while of course, I don’t condone his actions… I hardly think that the blind-hatred I’ve seen throughout most of the web does the situation justice.

    So, thank you.
    Rebecca

  17. Jen Waak says:

    It’s no secret that I’m a huge Jonah Lehrer fangirl, and my heart just broke when I read the NY Times article about it. I don’t even want to try to guess how it happened, what the thought process was (or wasn’t), etc. And it pains me to think that everything he’s ever written is likely to now get completely deconstructed.

    And, as a fellow writer who spends a lot of time curating, aggregating, and synthesizing other people’s information and does her best to attribute correctly, wholly, and completely, I hope that I never find myself in a similar situation.

    Jonah is incredibly talented, and my wish for him is that he comes out of this stronger.

  18. Stanley Lee says:

    I believe Ryan Holiday talked about this story in his latest book: Trust Me, I’m Lying. Ha

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